By Charles Foster
The Lord Chancellor recently announced that the discount rate under the Damages Act 1996 would be decreased from 2.5% to minus 0.75%. This sounds dull. In fact it is financially tectonic, and raises some important ethical questions.
In the law of tort, damages are intended to put a claimant in the position that she would have been in had the tort not occurred. A claimant who, as result of negligence on the part of a defendant, suffers personal injury, will be entitled to, inter alia, damages representing future loss of earnings, the future cost of care and, often, private medical and other treatment.
Where damages are awarded as a lump sum, there is a risk of over-compensating a claimant. Suppose that the claimant is 10 years old at the time of the award, and will live for 70 years, and the future care costs are £1000 a year for life. Should the sum awarded be £1000 x 70 years = £70,000? (70, here, is what lawyers call the ‘multiplier’). It depends on the assumption one makes about what the claimant will do with the lump sum. If she invests it in equities that give her (say) an annual 5% return, £70,000 would over-compensate her.
In the case of Wells v Wells1, the House of Lords decided that, to avoid the risk of under-compensation, claimants should be treated as risk-averse investors. It should be assumed, said the House, that the discount rate should be fixed by reference to the return on index-linked gilts – Government securities. The rate was 2.5% from 2001 until February of this year. The reasons for the change to minus 0.75% are here. Continue reading
Following widespread media coverage about the court case where baby Charlie Gard’s parents were told that his life support would be removed against their wishes, Dominic Wilkinson appeared on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the factors that doctors take into account when making such difficult decisions.
By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics
Should parents undertake prenatal testing? Is there a moral reason to prevent disability in your future child through embryo selection?
In a special Moral Philosophy Seminar yesterday evening, Professor Tom Shakespeare, from the University of East Anglia, gave a nuanced and multi-faceted argument against the arguments advanced by Julian Savulescu and Jeff McMahan in favour of embryo selection. In particular he attacked Julian’s Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PB)
Procreative Beneficence (shortened version): when considering different possible children, based on relevant available information, couples should select the child who is expected to have the best life*
Reports that a 62-year-old Spanish woman has given birth after IVF treatment have led many to question whether there should be age limits with such treatment. Lina Alvarez, a doctor in north-west Spain, isn’t the oldest person to have had success with IVF. Earlier this year, in India, Daljinder Kaur is said to have given birth at the age of 72, prompting calls from the Indian Medical Council for a ban on fertility treatment in women over the age of 50.
In many countries where there is funding assistance for IVF there is a limit to obtaining treatment over a certain age. In Britain, for example, the bar is set at age 42. But Alvarez received private treatment. So why care about her age? And what business is it of the rest of us whether she has access to IVF?
There are several arguments that typically surface in debates about age and fertility treatment – and they are all deeply flawed. Continue reading
Guest Post: Mind the accountability gap: On the ethics of shared autonomy between humans and intelligent medical devices
Guest Post by Philipp Kellmeyer
Imagine you had epilepsy and, despite taking a daily cocktail of several anti-epileptic drugs, still suffered several seizures per week, some minor, some resulting in bruises and other injuries. The source of your epileptic seizures lies in a brain region that is important for language. Therefore, your neurologist told you, epilepsy surgery – removing brain tissue that has been identified as the source of seizures in continuous monitoring with intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) – is not viable in your case because it would lead to permanent damage to your language ability.
There is however, says your neurologist, an innovative clinical trial under way that might reduce the frequency and severity of your seizures. In this trial, a new device is implanted in your head that contains an electrode array for recording your brain activity directly from the brain surface and for applying small electric shocks to interrupt an impending seizure.
The electrode array connects wirelessly to a small computer that analyses the information from the electrodes to assess your seizure risk at any given moment in order to decide when to administer an electric shock. The neurologist informs you that trials with similar devices have achieved a reduction in the frequency of severe seizures in 50% of patients so that there would be a good chance that you benefit from taking part in the trial.
Now, imagine you decided to participate in the trial and it turns out that the device comes with two options: In one setting, you get no feedback on your current seizure risk by the device and the decision when to administer an electric shock to prevent an impending seizure is taken solely by the device.
This keeps you completely out of the loop in terms of being able to modify your behaviour according to your seizure risk and – in a sense – relegates some autonomy of decision-making to the intelligent medical device inside your head.
In the other setting, the system comes with a “traffic light” that signals your current risk level for a seizure, with green indicating a low, yellow a medium, and red a high probability of a seizure. In case of an evolving seizure, the device may additionally warn you with an alarm tone. In this scenario, you are kept in the loop and you retain your capacity to modify your behavior accordingly, for example to step from a ladder or stop riding a bike when you are “in the red.”
Kuwait is planning to build a complete DNA database of not just citizens but all other residents and temporary visitors. The motivation is claimed to be antiterrorism (the universal motivation!) and fighting crime. Many are outraged, from local lawyers over a UN human rights committee to the European Society of Human Genetics, and think that it will not be very helpful against terrorism (how does having the DNA of a suicide bomber help after the fact?) Rather, there are reasons to worry about misuse in paternity testing (Kuwait has strict adultery laws), and in the politics of citizenship (which provides many benefits): it is strictly circumscribed to paternal descendants of the original Kuwaiti settlers, and there is significant discrimination against people with no recognized paternity such as the Bidun minority. Plus, and this might be another strong motivation for many of the scientists protesting against the law, it might put off public willingness to donate their genomes into research databases where they actually do some good. Obviously it might also put visitors off visiting – would, for example, foreign heads of state accept leaving their genome in the hands of another state? Not to mention the discovery of adultery in ruling families – there is a certain gamble in doing this.
Overall, it seems few outside the Kuwaiti government are cheering for the law. When I recently participated in a panel discussion organised by the BSA at the Wellcome Collection about genetic privacy, at the question “Would anybody here accept mandatory genetic collection?” only one or two hands rose in the large audience. When would it make sense to make mandatory genetic information collection? Continue reading
by Professor Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics
Professor of Medical Ethics, Consultant Neonatologist
Our society has good reason to provide special treatment to people with severe brain injuries and their families.
But our current “special treatment” for a group of the most severely affected people with brain injuries leads to devastating, agonising, protracted and totally preventable suffering.
By Charles Foster
English law has traditionally, for most purposes, regarded animals as mere chattels. There is now animal welfare legislation which seeks to prevent or limit animal suffering, but provided that legislation is complied with, and that no other relevant laws (eg those related to public health) are broken, you are free to do what you want with your animal.
Veterinary surgeons are in an interesting position. The UK regulatory body for veterinarians, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (‘RCVS’) publishes a Code of Professional Conduct. This provides, inter alia:
‘1.1 Veterinary surgeons must make animal health and welfare their first consideration when attending to animals.’
‘2.2 Veterinary surgeons must provide independent and impartial advice and inform a client of any conflict of interest.’
‘First consideration’ in 1.1 is a rather weasly formulation. Does it mean that it is the overriding consideration, trumping all others, however weighty those others might be? Or the one that veterinarians ought to consider first, before moving on to other criteria which might well prevail? Continue reading
On the 7th, 8th, and 9th of June 2016 a group of philosophers and bioethicists gathered at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in a workshop on healthcare practitioners’ conscience and conscientious objection in healthcare. Conscientious objection is the refusal by a healthcare practitioner to provide a certain medical service, for example an abortion or medical assistance in dying, because it conflicts with the practitioner’s moral views. Aim of the workshop was to discuss the ethical and legal aspects of conscientious objection in healthcare, in view of proposing some guidelines for the regulation of conscientious objection in healthcare in the future.
At the end of the workshop, the participants formulated a consensus statement of 10 points, which are here proposed as ethical guidelines that should inform, at the level of legislations and institutional policies, the way conscientious objections in healthcare is regulated. The 10 points are the following:
* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.
Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”
I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.
It’s time to bring ambivalence back. Continue reading